Halt and Catch Fire began its run as a Mad Men of the 1980s, with Lee Pace playing Joe MacMillan, a Steve Jobsian tech renegade who’s full of ideas but lacks even basic coding skills. The series initially seemed enamored of Joe MacMillan as a typical tortured male protagonist, but the show’s creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers have since upended the stereotype of the haunted genius who barks mysterious aphorisms at the people around him and always proves his naysayers wrong. This season took that creative shift to its logical extreme, building Joe up to messianic levels of fame before reducing him to nothing.
Though he began the series working with the other main characters, Joe eventually became estranged from them all. He started the third season as the head of a tech corporation hawking anti-virus software to new PC users, warning them of the dangers of the connected world. His plan was to offer the software for free to hook customers, with the intention of up-charging them later—a strategy that has since become routine. Joe’s speechifying about a grand programming rebellion drew the devotion of Ryan Ray (Manish Dayal), a new character who became Joe’s eager stooge, lapping up his vague proclamations and frustratingly trying to imitate his aloof personality. But where Joe could impress boardrooms through sheer force of will, Ryan always seemed more foolish, even as his coding work turned Joe’s ideas into reality.
Eventually, Ryan became so enamored, and Joe’s relationship with his corporate overlords became so adversarial, that Ryan illegally released the anti-virus software’s code to the public. Assuming he’d be rewarded for his cavalier approach, Ryan ended up facing arrest, and a horrified Joe tried to convince him to turn himself in to the police. Instead, in last week’s episode he committed suicide, leaving behind a note that spoke hopefully of the future that Joe’s philosophies, and the approaching internet revolution, envisioned. “It’s a huge danger, a gigantic risk,” Ryan intoned in a posthumous voice-over. “But it’s worth it. If only we can learn to take care of each other. Then this awesome, destructive new connection won’t destroy us. It won’t leave us, in the end, so totally alone.” It was a tragic realization: Ryan still expressed optimism for the future, even as his efforts to jump toward it left him dead.
The finale thus sees Joe in a fully humbled state, robbed of his powers, with the rest of the cast similarly scattered. Parallel to Joe’s breakdown, the third season charted the rapid rise and disintegration of Mutiny, the company created by the show’s female leads. Founded as an online-gaming forum, Mutiny evolved to reflect the beginnings of social networking on the internet, embracing instant messaging and adding a marketplace that was reminiscent of an early eBay or Craigslist. But as Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) and Donna (Kerry Bishé) saw things take off, the former started fearing that the independent spirit of her web community was being lost to marketing opportunities, while the latter pressed to go public quickly and capitalize on their buzz.